Sunday, August 09, 2009

Encouragement vs Praise Update

As I've been paying close attention to my encouraging words this week, it occurred to me that there is one scenario where it is really tempting to cross that line from encouragement to praise. I don't often do it, but the temptation is there.

The situation where this happens for me is when the kids are successful at or really enjoying something that I personally highly value.

When Ryan digs a huge hole in the sandbox, is super proud of his efforts, and wants me to acknowledge them, it's quite easy for me to say encouraging/acknowledging things, such as "Wow! You did it!" or "You sure worked hard on that hole." I am not in danger of cheerleading here, mostly because, well, big holes in the sand just don't excite me all that much. A proud kid--yes, that is exciting. Holes, notsomuch.

But when Ryan picks up a book and sounds out some words and wants me to acknowledge his accomplishment . . . well, sometimes it's hard not to jump up and down with my own excitement and shout "He can read, he can read, oh I'm so glad that he can read!"

That's not to say I don't share my enthusiasm with him. And I think it's just fine for him to see that I get more excited about reading than big holes. But it's a time when I really need to think carefully about the words I say to him, because, in my excitement, I don't want to inadvertently rob him of the feeling of pride he has in his accomplishment, and I don't want to give him the idea that he should look to me for cues about how he should feel about it. Or that he should do this thing solely because it makes me happy.

So I will say "Wow! You did it!" or "You're really getting the hang of this reading thing! That's so cool!" And smile big and give him a hug. But then I will force myself to back away from him, lest my enthusiasm become smothering and siphon off all of the fun he's having. Because I know that if he is reading because he truly wants to--and not because he knows that I want him to--then he is much more likely to keep it up. I do believe that internal motivation (when it comes from a place of rational self-interest) is more effective and satisfying! than any motivation system that I might devise.

Beth recently remarked in this post that ". . . I have to constantly remind myself that it is important for me not to care more than he [her son] does about his values." I've been thinking about this remark for the last couple of weeks, and it is a very astute observation. And I think Encouragement vs Praise is related.

At this point in his life, I may care more than Ryan does about his acquisition of reading skills. In fact, I probably do care more than he does. But since I want him to care about reading some day (and he is getting there, obviously), AND since I want him to be a first-handed valuer in general, I need to take care not to insert myself between him and this value that he is just beginning to appreciate.

It's certainly a tricky line to walk. Especially because these kids really do pay attention to every single thing we do and say! As far as reading goes, it certainly helped that I identified that Ryan does want to know what words say--but he doesn't want to take the time to figure them out independently. Since he is motivated to know what they say, then gently withdrawing my actions away from him (by not reading words I think he is capable of figuring out on his own), I am getting out of his way. And I must be careful not to undo all of my excellent analysis and work by working myself up into a Cheerleader Parent when he does accomplish any sort of reading task.


Stay tuned for another PD Tool Card tomorrow!


Daniel said...

Would you say it's important "not to care" about certain values more than your child--or that it's important not to show your preferences so much that the child just follows your values instead of his own?

It sounds like a small distinction but one's actions could be very different if the latter is chosen. Thanks in advance.

Jennifer Snow said...

Speaking as someone who was perpetually nagged about doing what my parents wanted me to do as a child, I have to agree that it's absolutely vital to provide encouragement without praise and/or nagging, particularly with *older* children. To this day it's literally impossible for me to enjoy praise and I have next to no self-motivation. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that I have negative self-motivation: my desire to do something is *inversely* proportional to how important it is.

I think the worst of it is, indeed, when the parents want their kids to do something that the parents think would be good for them, because no amount of "I don't want to!" will be heeded. My parents killed any possibility that I would ever be interested in music by basically FORCING me to take (and pay for, with my OWN MONEY) guitar lessons that I DID NOT WANT.

With complex tasks this is especially important, because the kid is going to diddle around with it for hours, days, or months and never seem to be getting anywhere. But you should really resist the urge to stomp in, take over, and "show them how to do it". A child's interest in a musical instrument or building equipment is not an adult's interest. Imagine how you would feel if you were doing something completely unfamiliar that you're not very good at (like playing a computer game, say), and just when you start having fun someone walks in and yanks the controller out of your hands in order to demonstrate how to play "properly". Would you have fun? Would you learn *anything*? Or would you just get annoyed and possibly give up out of frustration and boredom?

I think the reason teenagers stereotypically clam up has nothing to do with hormones, it's the fact that they're really starting to develop independent interests and they're sick and tired of having the controller jerked out of their hands every time they try to do something.

Beth said...

RE: Would you say it's important "not to care" about certain values more than your child--or that it's important not to show your preferences so much that the child just follows your values instead of his own?

More thoughts:
I do care what values my children choose--and I will express my own values as a way of communicating what I think is important. I will also insist on certain actions and behaviors when they directly impact me--or when I think their actions/choices have life or significant health threatening consequences that the child can not appreciate at his particular developmental stage.

The issue arises when I end up working harder than my child to assist him in achieving his own values--e.g. excellence in school work, skill at a musical instrument, choosing books to read, etc. I made this mistake way too often when he was younger, and I now see my son without a strong appreciation for the fact that he is responsible for his own happiness. That's a tough concept to get across at 16.

The other thought I would add is that it became very hard for me to figure out how to manage a variation of this issue in homeschooling as my children have grown older--perhaps because I did not do very well with it when they were younger. In JR High, the school work became challenging and the need for stricter discipline arose--I found it difficult to find a good balance. The issue of trying to be encouraging as a parent but also act as the evaluator in my role as teacher is one I have not yet figured out--hence my children entered institutional schools for high school (son is a senior and daughter is just starting part-time as a freshman.) Just one other aspect to monitor.

Rational Jenn said...

I just had an interesting thought, and I only have a few minutes here, so this comment will be brief. I'll come back to revisit these comments in a little while.

When it comes to Optional Values, it's somewhat easier not to cheerlead when I also share those values. Because optional values are very individual--big holes vs sand castles, pepperoni or sausage, taekwondo or gymnastics--those are choices which I am indifferent to outside of the larger realm of values (playing in the sandbox, or pizza toppings, or exercise). And even those value categories are somewhat optional (if you don't like pizza for example).

It's those other, non-optional values--reading, taking care of your body, being responsible for your own happiness (and I realize I'm mixing these up a bit but I have very limited time just at the moment)....Reading is a necessary skill for success and happiness. I know that. But the kids don't necessarily know that. And while I encourage reading and am excited when they are succeeding at it, and yes, even when I'm gently guiding them toward it, I'm trying very very hard NOT to encourage them to do this thing simply because I want it. Because it's so important to their future rational happiness, I do not want to inadvertently encourage second-handedness in this area.

I think there are certainly more ideas to explore here that I don't know the answers to--what would I do if someone absolutely refused to read, for example? (I'm two for three, so I suppose it's possible Sean might be that kid.) Is that even possible when normally developing kids are growing up in an environment with so many books and others who are reading? How could/should that be handled? Again--future ideas to be explored.

Also, it's okay with me if Ryan does not become a lover of Literature or a bookworm. I personally am (English major)and reading is vital to my happiness. But if Ryan is more utilitarian in his reading (like my husband) or prefers non-fiction (since he's such a history/science buff)--that's okay, too.

Bye for now....Thanks for your comments, Daniel, Jennifer, and Beth.

Jennifer Snow said...

I wouldn't worry about kids *refusing* to learn how to read, Jen. It's way too frustrating to be the only non-reader in a household of people who read. My brother Benjamin was absolutely DYING to learn how to read because Gareth and I would play games that required literacy with my dad and BENJAMIN WANTED TO PLAY.

So, if worse comes to worst, start playing Magic: The Gathering or Dungeons and Dragons together. Trust me, they'll read.

Such Lovely Freckles said...

Okay, so I went from noticing negative things to noticing positive things in my children. With noticing positive things came praise. Now I read, praise is bad, but encouraging words are good. I get this... in theory. But in reality I'm not sure how to "do it". Can you give me an example of encouragement rather than praise? I'm really struggling with this. What would be encouragement, when my children do something that I hoped they would do, and they are asking for my opinion?
It really saddens me to hear what Jennifer Snow says about not being able to enjoy praise. I didn't receive much praise at all, and I was dying to hear it. Or was I dying to hear encouragement? Will my children feel like this when they grow up? Either way I'm not sure how to realize the theory.

Having said all that, I'm not a person who praises for every little thing my children do. I always do encourage them to figure things out for themselves. But what do I do when they actually have figured something out? Is praise not in order? HELP!!

Such Lovely Freckles said...

Well, I had a conversation with my friend about this this afternoon, and we came to the conclusion that a lot of my "praise" is actually more encouragement. I would still like to know if you have any more examples. :)

Jennifer Snow said...

Lovely Freckles, I think one of the best examples was in an article I blogged about a while ago about the difference between telling children "wow, you're smart!" and "wow, you must have worked really hard!"

If you tell someone that they're *smart*, you're offering praise, and worse, you're praising them for something they have no control over--their intelligence. But accidental attributes are the least important things about a person. What's worse, when you praise someone for a trait like that, they start thinking that they are *failing* when things start to become difficult. They lose the desire to work hard and accomplish things because they're not being "smart" any more.

If you encourage them by saying "wow, you must have worked really hard!" though, they become ever more willing to embrace difficult tasks and not give up when they encounter difficulties. Ultimately that's very important because everyone, no matter how intelligent, is going to encounter areas that are HARD WORK, and it really helps if they don't feel like doing whatever-it-is is a test of their self-esteem.

You could use many more examples, too. It's praise to say "you're so pretty!" It's *encouragement* to say "You picked the perfect outfit!" or "your hair/makeup looks great!" It's praise to say "you're talented!" it's encouragement to say "you're skilled!" Etc.

Rational Jenn said...

Okay, I'm back!

Daniel--that's an interesting distinction. I'd say the latter, if I'm understanding you correctly. I don't want to give the kids the idea that they should do/value anything simply because I want them to, or I value it.

Even when I'm helping them do something I think they should do and they don't want to--like pick up their toys--I always make sure to point out the rational self-interest for THEM to be doing it (toys put away don't get stepped on and broken, for example).

We share lots of values with the kids; but we are wary of the tendency of young children to seek our approval and not to use that against them, if that makes any kind of sense.

Rational Jenn said...

Jennifer--I am horrified that your parents made you take lesson you didn't want and then made you PAY for them to boot! Why in the world?

I'm still irritated that I was forced to take Latin in high school when I really wanted to take German. The irony is that Latin was something I was interested in, but I preferred German more. I was forced into Latin because they thought it would be good for my SAT scores (another irony, I took the SATs at the beginning of my sophomore year, did just fine, and never took them again--took Latin sophomore/junior years).

Then they made me sign up for Latin in college (since I had tested out of one semester). Fortunately, by this time, I had my head on a little straighter, dropped Latin, took 5 semesters of German, and had lots of fun with it. What a waste of my time--not just being made to take a class I didn't want, but the time I spent feeling resentful and conflicted about it! Stupid stupid stupid.

It's hard to say how things will go when my kids are teens (things look much different now than they did when I was expecting my first child!), but I can't see wasting my time on such nonsense from the parental end either, not when they are old enough to be making these kinds of decisions. Yes, they will make mistakes, and that is okay--a really great way to figure things out. Knowing me, I'll be compelled to throw my 2 cents in, offer advice and guidance and resources, and of course I'll be there to prevent irreparable damage, but I just can't see the point in forcing my values to become theirs.

Rational Jenn said...

Lovely Freckles, I think Jennifer gave some good examples, but here are a few more to help you draw the distinction.

Praise: "Good Girl!"

Encouragement: "Hooray, you did it!"

Praise focuses on attributes of the child: "You're so whatever (pretty, smart, funny)." These are labeling words that a child can misunderstand. I was told how smart I was growing up--and became afraid to fail, afraid of being imperfect, lest I did not live up to my label.

Encouragement focuses on choices the child makes: "You really worked hard on that." or "Thanks for helping out with the baby, I can always count on you!"

Encouragement also lets someone who is struggling know that you are there for them and are supportive of their efforts: "You can do it. I know you can." or "I know you're pretty good at coming up with solutions to problems. Any ideas for this problem?"

One way to think about it--would you ever praise your spouse in a serious way, such as "You're so smart!" or would you say to him "Awesome, sweetie! I knew you could [land that job or run 5 miles or whatever]."

Adults don't tend to overpraise each other--because we can all see right through it, and because we don't want it. I don't want another adult to tell me "Good job!" (my most detested praise phrase). I want to hear "Wow, that bit of writing was fun to read."

That's all kids want, too.

I hope this helps, gotta go rescue a baby from certain destruction....more later....

Rational Jenn said...

Also, I didn't mention this before, but I think there's value in just shutting up, too! What I mean is, that some parents seem to be under the impression that each and every single thing their child does needs a "hurrah!" so they praise constantly. Even encouraging words would sound like meaningless praise if overused, I think.

Unless the child is asking for some feedback, or it's a natural part of the events--we're having a conversation, for example--then I usually don't even say anything. Let them bask in/consider their accomplishment/problem without mommy interference. Then it's TRULY their own.